By DOTTY NIST
The Howard Group will have the option to build a 14-story, 250-unit apartment building on vacant property at Grand Boulevard.
The apartment building would be constructed in the same footprint of a hotel approved by Walton County in 2008 that has not been built.
This multi-family option for the property was made available through approval of an amendment to the Sandestin Development of Regional Impact (DRI) development order. The amendment was approved as a minor development. The decision took place at the June 24 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs. According to the approval, the Howard Group will have two years to decide whether to build apartments or proceed with the hotel.
While under separate ownership, the Grand Boulevard property was included in Sandestin’s original DRI approved by the county in 1976 and is still considered part of the DRI, a fact making the DRI amendment necessary.
The June 2008 development order for the site had been for a 123,567-square-foot, 14-story, 225-room hotel, which was to include 37,512 square feet of commercial space. The site is on the north side of U.S. 98 in the Grand Boulevard Town Center area.
While the building is to exceed Walton County’s 50-foot height limit, the county has considered a variance on height to apply to Sandestin projects based on an April 10, 1986, decision of the Walton County Zoning Board of Adjustments that provided for variances not only in heights but also in setback requirements for the DRI.
In December 2008, the Presidents’ Council of Sandestin, Inc., a group representing 50 homeowners’ associations within the Sandestin DRI, challenged the county’s approval of the Grand Boulevard hotel in Walton County Circuit Court. In that lawsuit and subsequent litigation brought by the group in the First District Court of Appeal, the court rulings were in favor of Walton County and Grand Boulevard.
As proposed at the June 24 BCC meeting, the apartment option included the commercial space that had been part of the approved plans for the hotel.
County staff advised that the proposed amendment did not meet criteria for a substantial deviation as set forth in state statute, and thus would not require a Notice of Proposed Change (NOPC) procedure for the DRI before approval.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows was concerned about being asked to approve the proposed amendment while it remained unverfied whether the Sandestin DRI was in compliance with open space requirements set forth in the DRI development order. Earlier in the meeting, Greater Driftwood Estates homeowner Alan Osborne had raised similar concerns regarding the open space requirements and other issues of alleged noncompliance in connection with the recent DRI annual report.
Florida Statutes 380.06(17) states that local government are not to issue permits or approvals if a developer fails to act in substantial compliance with a development order.
Renee Bradley of Walton County Planning commented that the annual report for the DRI showed an “overage” of open space but that staff still had unresolved questions. “There are issues with their report,” she said. It was her opinion that Sandestin did need to proceed with a NOPC to resolve those issues, but she did not call for a NOPC in connection with the amendment under consideration.
Greg Stewart, county legal counsel, told the commissioners that it appeared that a deviation from the DRI development order was in existence but not a substantial one. He explained that evaluations on the matter were ongoing. In order to put a stop to permit issuance and approval, Stewart explained, it would be necessary for any finding of substantial deviation to be brought before the BCC for an official determination. Without this having taken place, Stewart advised, it would not be possible to shut down requests by property owners in the DRI.
“I think it’s just ludicrous…we’ve been waiting for these numbers for years,” Meadows complained. She also expressed concern that residents of the apartments could be denied access to the amenities of the DRI.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander agreed that a NOPC was long overdue, and she called for holding Sandestin’s “feet to the fire” to complete the procedure. However, she saw a change from hotel to apartments as proposed in the amendment as a separate issue. “To me, it is a minor development,” she said.
Comander moved for approval of the amendment. The motion carried in a 3-1 vote, with Comander, County Commission Chairman Kenneth Pridgen, and District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman voting in favor. Meadows voted no, and District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld abstained from voting due to a business affiliation.